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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 309

Dr FREELANDER (Macarthur) (16:12): The Centrelink robo-debt collection system demonises people and it is a blight on the Australian government. It does not follow our judicial requirements of being innocent before proven guilty. It is the reflection of the coalition's longstanding ideological issues with people who interact with Centrelink. The whole saga is an attack on students, pensioners, people with disabilities and those who rely on child support. It is stereotyping people who receive Centrelink benefits as criminals. My office has been contacted by many people who have been incorrectly accused of having Centrelink debts. I have seen pensioners who, after receiving the call and debt notice, have paid the incorrect amount because they were too scared about what would happen if they did not. No-one should be forced to do this.

One of my constituents, Jeanette Suffield, was sent an incorrect Centrelink debt claim for several thousand dollars. Jeanette's story started when she was forced to undergo surgery to reconstruct her wrist because of an injury suffered while she was working as a registered nurse. She had no leave built up, but, because the surgery required prolonged recovery, she was forced to take unpaid leave and take the sickness benefits for a short period of time. After being alerted to this debt, Jeanette was asked to report her income for the year and question it multiple times, both over the phone and online, which she did. Despite lodging an official appeal over the phone and on paper at a Centrelink office, she was unable to get on to anyone who could help her resolve this issue. She was told that she had to set up a payment plan to repay her debt or it would go to collections. Only after my office made contact with the office of the Minister for Social Services was Jeanette contacted to say her debt had been waived because the assessment was wrong.

This whole process has become such a mess that Centrelink is now referring any inquiries for my constituents directly to my office so that we can write a representation on their behalf. Centrelink staff are overwhelmed and the upcoming strike is a symptom of that. Whilst many people have contacted me, including many with disabilities and some with mental health issues and in severe distress, my major concern is the process and the complete disregard of what we should expect of our government.

The government has, of course, been suffering from something of a pandemic of IT-related issues over the last 12 to 18 months, but the whole system is broken. According to the Australian National Audit Office, nearly a quarter of the 57 million phone calls made to Centrelink in 2015 went unanswered, and the auditors calculated that Australians spent 143 years waiting in vain to speak to Centrelink in 2013-2014 before simply hanging up. How much of this is directly its own doing and how much is related to a general mindset, both public and private, is a matter for consideration.

Much of this can be ascribed to the mad-scientist syndrome amongst certain ministers who are relying just on IT solutions; some of them appear to be the spawn of what Paul Keating described as the 'feral abacus' some years back. Much of this is down to many years of ill-considered efficiency dividends and untargeted cuts to service delivery areas in the Australian Public Service. It is hard to believe that poor management or sheer arrogance have not played a part, and I think we have seen that today. I know that the government ministers involved are not bad people on a personal level, but the fact that they deny there is a problem despite incontrovertible evidence and that they continue to deny the extreme difficulty in contacting Centrelink—the waiting for hours on the phone and computer-illiterate pensioners being told to sort it out online—to me, is just a failure of government.

We do not live in sub-Saharan Africa, or in Zambia or in a Baltic state before the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Many people who have contacted me have been greatly distressed, and I feel ashamed that we treat some of the most disadvantaged people in our society in this way. Labor has repeatedly asked for this system to be suspended until there is a review and until there is some human oversight. I call on the ministers to act now, before more decent people are put through this inhuman system that is reminiscent of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. A culture has been developed by this government of ill-considered efficiency dividends that damage the public and have no human input. We live in Australia, and we expect our government to care about its people. This is shameful, and we need to return to basic principles of government that support all of our population, not just the privileged few. I believe a Prime Ministerial apology should be given to all those damaged by this fiasco.